When we make the inevitable historical comparisons to these 2016-17 Golden State Warriors, most will naturally do so on the offensive side of the ball. This is understandable for several reasons, from the relative ease in finding offensive statistical comparison points to the simple visibility of the Dubs’ offensive dominance to even the casual fan. You don’t need advanced basketball knowledge to visually pick up how stunning this team is when they have the ball.
What about when they don’t have it, though? Interim coach Mike Brown recently offered a unique comparison point.
“I’ll never forget, back when I was the head coach of the Cavaliers, we were playing the old Pistons teams with Larry Brown coaching the team – they had a veteran team, you talk about Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace, Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, and those guys. The thing that I felt that bothered us a lot when we played them [was] they talked their defense through quite a bit. One time down the floor, in a pick-and-roll situation, they’d switch it. Then the next time down the floor, they may blitz it. Next time down the floor, they may push it to the baseline. The following time, they may show. To be able to mix up your defense throughout the course of the game, whether it’s on ball screens or pindowns, is something that can be to the defense’s advantage – but it’s hard to do, in my opinion, unless you have a veteran team that has a good feel. When you talk about Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green, to start with – David West inside. We have some intelligent veterans that are able to talk our defense through. So we’ll mix up our coverages. You watch us – we’ll switch sometimes, we won’t switch at other times.”
There’s a lot to digest there. If comparing your team directly to one of the consensus best defenses ever sounds a tad audacious, that’s because it is – but it’s also completely reasonable in this case.
There are some statistical similarities between those dominant mid-2000s Pistons and these Warriors, even beyond their mutual elite finishes year after year. Both teams forced a ton of turnovers and blocked a ton of shots, and both consistently rated near the bottom of the league in fouls committed, a dangerous combination.
But the real similarities went deeper, and Brown hits on them. In case you worry this is a bit of shameless self-promotion, know that opponents – including some who were around for those same Pistons teams – feel the same way.
“He’s comparing them to a great defense, and I would agree,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder, recently the victim of a Warriors blitzkrieg. “One of the guys on my staff was an assistant then, Igor Kokoshkov, so we’ve talked about those teams. We’ve talked about the balance of those teams. He’s talked about the communication, so it’s something I’m actually familiar with in a tangible way… You talk about a team with a high IQ, and you think about offense. [But] they have a defensive IQ that’s, you know, Mensa.”
Snyder’s Jazz got a healthy dose of the modern version of this in round two. The Warriors’ switching scheme on the ball has been relatively evident to the discerning hoops fan for a few years now, but they do it just as well away from the ball:
That play is a Jazz staple, a simple little action that nonetheless confounds many unprepared defenses. They begin in a HORNS alignment (a ball-handler at the top of the key, with two players in screening positions at both elbows), and Gordon Hayward comes up as if to set a screen for ball-handler Shelvin Mack:
Before he gets there, though, Hayward slips the screen and immediately takes a new flare screen from Rudy Gobert – the idea is to get Hayward’s man, Klay Thompson in this case, to lean too far the wrong way anticipating the ball screen.
Normally, this is tough for the defense. If the big man guarding Gobert doesn’t recognize what’s happening, Hayward gets a wide open three. Even if the big does recognize it and jumps out to Hayward, the defense often gives up an open rolling lane to Gobert amid the confusion. Best case scenario, the defense usually ends up with a slower big man switched onto Hayward, who can then go to work.
Not for the Warriors, though. They simply switch Draymond Green, a human Swiss Army knife, onto Hayward and Thompson onto Gobert, and the play is dead. With half the shot clock already gone, the Warriors aren’t worried about Thompson’s ability to handle the bigger Gobert for a few seconds, especially with a smart and long helping scheme around him. Thompson even has the savvy to sag way off Gobert and grab the steal during Hayward’s resulting drive.
Some of what Brown is talking about is simply personnel, and Green is the foundation. He’s long drawn comparisons to both of the anchors for those Pistons teams.
These comparisons aren’t new, of course. The similarities to Ben Wallace are pretty obvious, from an undersized stature to an emotional flare for the dramatic. Green has outwardly discussed (and written about) the inspiration he’s drawn from the Pistons’ former afro-toting defensive star, and even if they differ in their precise strengths and roles, it’s easy to see. The comparisons to Rasheed are perhaps less common, but just as apt.
“Ben Wallace is a little different anchoring those defenses, but the communication on the perimeter, the ability to switch,” Snyder said. “I think Rasheed Wallace was probably one of the great defensive communicators that’s ever played the game. But that was something, at least according to Igor too, that we’ve discussed – I look at that and I see Draymond Green a little bit. His ability to communicate and kind of orchestrate.”
Like with many things, we think of “freedom” for elite players almost exclusively on the offensive end – the better a guy is, the more leeway he has to take matters into his own hands and deviate from the plan to help the team. The Warriors “plan” less than virtually anyone, playing through feel far more often, but that same theme is still evident for Draymond on the defensive end.
“He basically has carte blanche, for the most part,” Brown said. “Just like Steph – if he wants to cross halfcourt and pull it from 55 feet, he can do the same. You have guys that are effective in certain areas of the game – you kind of give them a little bit more freedom or rope to do what they can do to help us win the ballgame.”
Green sets the baseline, but the whole thing still wouldn’t have the same overall effect without several other high-IQ guys on the court at all times. With the freedom to make changes on the fly and the hyper-intelligent Green constantly barking out little hints, the Warriors will cycle through each of several coverages Brown mentioned – all within a given game, quarter or even a single sequence.
Here’s David West showing Mack a quick blitz when it looks like Mack might have a step on his man, Ian Clark. Notice how seamlessly Green stays within reach of Gobert, temporarily free as the roll man, before leaping back out to corral his own man, Joe Johnson. Then West makes a great individual play to rip the ball from Gobert for a steal.
Sometimes, they’ll show the blitz, but audible out of it within instants. West is all set to make the same play here, but the moment he notices Green getting over the ball screen more easily than expected, West scurries back to his man and gives Draymond all the time he needs to jack the rock from a befuddled Johnson.
They don’t always need to be so aggressive, though, and opposing personnel plays a big role. When Utah’s Joe Ingles was the ball-handler in pick-and-roll sets, for instance, the Warriors generally played a softer coverage: a brief show by the big man, but then a drop back.
The Dubs know Ingles isn’t much of a threat to pull up from midrange, and prefers to either pass or find the layup as long as they keep him from launching a three. JaVale McGee shows him just enough of a body to stop the triple, but then relaxes, allowing Iguodala to stay home on Hayward in the corner and grab the steal when Ingles anticipates more middle help from Iggy:
Hell, they’ll mix it up within the same play depending on how well the screen was set. Look at how Durant and West are all set to play a basic drop-back scheme here on a Johnson-Gobert pick-and-roll, but when Gobert’s second try at the screen is much more effective, West aborts the plan and simply switches onto him, generating yet another turnover.
The Warriors are one of just a handful of teams since those Pistons capable of playing this way based on personnel, but make no mistake about one thing: It takes so much more than just a bunch of long, versatile guys to do this. The collective IQ for this team defense is among the highest in recent memory, and maybe in the game’s history.
Making it even more remarkable is the lack of a traditional rim protector on the floor at virtually all times. McGee has the profile, but he’s a wild jumper who can be moved out of position with basic craft, and he commits way too many goaltends and no-chance leaps that put him out of position. Zaza Pachulia is one of the worst rim protectors in the league for his size.
That really only leaves Green (an elite and thoroughly underrated rim protector, but not in the traditional sense), West (a converted power forward) and Durant, who took a big defensive leap this season that largely went unnoticed amid several other bigger storylines. Durant blocked a higher percentage of opponent shots this year than ever before, and allowed a respectable opponent percentage at the rim, per SportVU figures.
“Just me personally, I’ve never been a huge believer in trying to go get a shot-blocker,” Brown said. “If you have one, great. But I feel like if you have guys who are intelligent, guys who are willing to cover for one another, guys who understand the rule of verticality, then in my opinion, that’s just as good as going and getting a guy that can block shots. And I think all of our guys have a good feel for using the rule of verticality, and then covering for one another.”
Brown’s personal beliefs aside, this is the largest difference between this group and those Pistons defenses.
Those teams had Ben Wallace in a Draymond-ish role, providing a mixture of help-side and on-ball rim protection. But they also had Rasheed as the final line of defense in an era where the power of the three-pointer wasn’t yet fully realized, and the list of bigs who could ever reliably move Rasheed away from his post in the paint was basically Dirk Nowitzki and no one else.
That the Warriors are drawing these comparisons, and that they aren’t ludicrous, is an even greater feat within this context. There’s no Sheed to clean up mistakes; even if there was, there are so many more matchups that could cause problems for these types in today’s game. The biggest area where the two elite defenses diverge is probably the single most impressive part of this Warriors group.
As the playoffs wear on, there’s a real chance these comparisons become the only decent ones left. There just aren’t any contemporary analogies that make sense, or capture the full force of what this team does on both ends. Any team that manages an unlikely four victories in seven over this group will not only have beaten a historically great attack, but also one of the smartest and most unique defenses ever assembled.
Emeka Okafor Impacting 2018 Western Conference Playoff Race
Sidelined for several years with a neck injury, Emeka Okafor is back in the NBA and helping the Pelicans fight for a playoff seed.
When DeMarcus Cousins ruptured his Achilles tendon, most people in and around the league assumed the New Orleans Pelicans would eventually fall out of the Western Conference Playoff race. It was a fair assumption. In 48 games this season, Cousins averaged 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.6 blocks while shooting 47 percent from the field and 35.4 percent from beyond the arc.
Anthony Davis and the Pelicans had other plans. Davis put the team on his shoulders, played at an elite level and, arguably, has forced his way into the MVP race. Behind Davis’ efforts, the Pelicans are currently 39-29, have won 7 of their last 10 games and hold the sixth seed in the Western Conference.
While Davis has been carrying the team since the loss of Cousins, he has received significant help from his teammates, including Emeka Okafor.
More recent NBA fans may be less familiar with Okafor since he has been out of the league since the end of the 2012-13 season. For context, in Okafor’s last season, David Lee led the league in double-doubles, Luol Deng led the league in minutes per game and Joakim Noah made the NBA All-Defensive First Team. However, Okafor entered the NBA with a lot of excited and expectations. He was drafted second overall, right behind Dwight Howard. Okafor played in 9 relatively successful NBA seasons until being sidelined indefinitely with a herniated disc in his neck prior to the start of the 2013-14 season.
Okafor was medically cleared to play in May of last year and played in five preseason games with the Philadelphia 76ers but was ultimately waived in October, prior to the start of the regular season. However, with the injury to Cousins, the Pelicans were in need of help at the center position and signed Okafor to a 10-day contract. Okafor earned a second 10-day contract and ultimately landed a contract for the rest of this season.
Okafor has played in 14 games so far for the Pelicans has is receiving limited playing time thus far. Despite the lack of playing time, Okafor is making his presence felt when he is on the court. Known as a defensive specialist, Okafor has provided some much needed rim protection and has rebounded effectively as well.
He has been [helpful] since the day he got here,” Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry said about Okafor after New Orleans’ recent victory over the Los Angeles Clippers. “I think his rim protection has been great. But, he’s capable of making a little jump shot and you can see that today. But just having him in there, his presence there has been great.”
Okafor has never been known as an elite offensive player, but he did average 15.1 points per game in his rookie season and has shown glimpses of an improved jump shot in his limited run with the Pelicans.
“You know, I’m happy it’s falling,” Okafor said after he helped seal the victory over the Clippers. “Kept in my back pocket. I was invoked to use it, so figured I’d dust it off and show it.”
Okafor was then asked if he has any other moves in his back pocket that he hasn’t displayed so far this season.
“A little bit. I don’t want to give it all,” Okafor told Basketball Insiders. “There’s a couple shots still. But we’ll see what opportunities unveil themselves coming forward.”
Okafor will never have the elite offensive skill set that Cousins has but his overall contributions have had a positive impact for a New Orleans squad that was desperate for additional production after Cousin’s Achilles tear.
“It’s impossible to replace a guy that was playing at an MVP level,” Gentry said recently. “For us, Emeka’s giving us something that we desperately missed with Cousins. The same thing with Niko. Niko’s given us something as far as spacing the floor. Between those guys, they’ve done the best they could to fill in for that. But we didn’t expect anyone to fill in and replace what Cousins was doing for us.”
Okafor is currently averaging 6.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game while shooting 54.5 percent from the field. While his averages don’t jump off the page, it should be noted that his per minute production is surprisingly impressive. Per 36 minutes, Okafor is averaging 13.4 points, 11.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocks. Those numbers are nearly identical to his averages from the 2012-13 season, though he is averaging twice as many blocks (up from 1.4).
The Pelicans have exceeded expectations and currently are ahead of teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers in the extremely tight Western Conference Playoff race. Okafor is doing more than could have reasonably been expected when he first signed with the Pelicans, though he would be the first person to pass the credit toward Anthony Davis.
When asked about Davis’ recent play, Okafor enthusiastically heaped praise toward his superstar teammate.
“It’s to the point where it’s like, ‘Alright, he has 40 doesn’t he?’ It’s impressive,” Okafor said about Davis. But it’s becoming so commonplace now.
He’s just an impressive individual. He gives it all. He’s relentless. And then off the court too, he’s a very, very nice kid. He really takes the leadership role seriously. I’m even more impressed with that part.”
There is still plenty of regular season basketball to be played and even a two-game losing streak can drastic consequences. But the Pelicans have proved to be very resilient and Okafor is confident in the team’s potential and outlook.
“I think we’re all hitting a good grove here and we’re playing very good basketball, said Okafor.”
Whether the Pelicans make the playoffs or not, it’s great to see Okafor back in the NBA and playing meaningful minutes for a team in the playoff race.
NBA Daily: Nothing’s Promised, Not Even For The Warriors
The Warriors are wounded, and with Chris Paul, the Rockets may be equipped to take advantage.
The Warriors are wounded, and for those that thought their waltzing into a four consecutive NBA Finals was a given, the Houston Rockets may have other ideas. Especially when one considers that the beloved Dubs are trying to buck history.
Steph Curry has ankle problems, Klay has a fractured thumb and Kevin Durant—the most recent of the team’s lynchpins to find himself on the disabled list—has a rib injury.
Sure, the Dubs might shake off their injuries and find themselves at or near 100 percent once the playoffs begin, but seldom do teams in the NBA get healthier as the year progresses.
Winning in the NBA is difficult. In order to take all the marbles, teams need a bunch of different ingredients, chief among them are good fortune and health. And in many ways, the two are entwined.
Simply put: the human body isn’t built to play as often and as hard as NBA players do. Those that we recognize as being among the greatest ever—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James among them—had one thing in common. They were all exceptionally durable.
Over the years, we’ve seen attrition and fragility cost the likes of Anfernee Hardaway, Yao Ming and Derrick Rose what seemed to be careers full of accolades and accomplishments. And the simple truth is that you never know which player, players or teams will be next to be undercut by injuries and progressive fatigue.
Just to keep things in perspective, the Warriors are attempting to become just the fifth team since 1970 to win at least three NBA championships in a four-year span.
The Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA Finals in 1985, 1987 and 1988 before Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls completed their three-peat from 1991-93. The Bulls would again do the same between 1996 and 1998, and Shaquille O’Neal and his Los Angeles Lakers accomplished the same from 2000 to 2002.
There are reasons why so few teams have been able to win as frequently as the Lakers and Bulls have, and health is certainly one of them. That’s especially interesting to note considering the fact that the Warriors may have been champions in 2016 had they had their team at full strength. Mind you, both Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala were severely limited in their abilities, while Andrew Bogut missed the fateful and decisive Game 6 and Game 7 of those Finals with injuries to his left leg.
At the end of the day, injuries are a part of the game. The best teams are often able to overcome them, while the luckiest teams often don’t have to deal with them. To this point, the Warriors have been both the best and incredibly lucky, but at a certain point, the sheer volume of basketball games is likely to have an adverse effect on at least a few members of the team.
We may be seeing that now.
En route to winning the 2015 NBA Finals, the Warriors turned in a playoff record of 16-5. In 2016, they were 15-9 and in 2017, they were 16-1. In total, the 62 playoff games would have worn a bit of tread off of their collective tires, just as their 73-9 regular season record may have. In becoming a historically great team, the Warriors have expending the energy necessary of a team wishing to remain a contender, and that’s not easy.
As an aside, those that understand the difficulty in competing at a high level every single night are the ones who rightfully give LeBron James the respect he’s due for even having the opportunity to play into June eight consecutive years. Win or lose, in terms of consistent effort and constant production, James has shown as things we’ve never seen before.
Today, it’s fair to wonder whether the Warriors have that same capability.
We’ll find out in short order.
* * * * * *
As the Houston Rockets appear headed toward ending the Warriors’ regular season reign atop the Western Conference, there’s something awfully coincidental about the fact that the team seems to have taken the next step after the addition of Chris Paul.
Paul knows a thing or two about attrition and how unlucky bouts with injuries at inopportune times can cost a team everything. As much as anything else, it probably has something to do with why Paul continues to believe in the ability of the Rockets to achieve immortality.
On the first night of the regular season, mind you, in one horrific moment, Gordon Hayward and the Boston Celtics reminded us that on any given play, the outlook of an entire season—and perhaps, even a career—can change.
A twisted knee here, a sprained ankle there, and who knows?
With just over three weeks remaining in the regular season, the Warriors—the team that everyone knew would win the Western Conference again this season—has some concerns. Their primary weapons are hurting, their chances of securing home court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs are all but nil and their road to the Finals may end up being more difficult than they could have possibly imagined.
If the season ended today and the seeds held, the Warriors would draw the San Antonio Spurs in the first round and the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round before squaring off against the Rockets in the Western Conference Finals.
Of all teams, the Spurs are probably the last team the Warriors would want to see in the playoffs, much less the first round. While the outcome of that series would be determined by the health of Kawhi Leonard, there’s no doubt that Gregg Popovich would at least be able to effectively game plan for Golden State.
While the Blazers might not provide incredible resistance to the Warriors, the Oklahoma City Thunder will enter play on March 18 just two games behind the Blazers for the third seed out West. With the two teams squaring off against one another on March 25, it’s possible for Russell Westbrook and his crew having the opportunity to square off against the Dubs in the playoffs.
For Golden State, their path to the Finals having to go through San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Houston would absolutely be a worst case scenario. The only thing that could make it even more terrible for Steve Kerr would be having to do it with a platoon that was less than 100 percent.
Funny. In yet another season where everyone thought that it was the Warriors and everyone else, there are quite a few questions facing the defending champs heading into the final few weeks of the regular season.
Indeed, the Warriors are wounded. And whether they can be nursed back up to full strength is perhaps the most interesting thing to watch as the calendar turns to April and playoff basketball draws nearer.
NBA Daily: The Golden State Warriors Need to Enter Rest Mode
With a bevy of injuries to their stars, the Golden State Warriors should rest up the remainder of the regular season to avoid any playoff letdowns.
After a three-year-long run of dominating the NBA, the Golden State Warriors are showing some cracks in their armor.
Granted, those cracks aren’t a result of a botched system or poor play, but rather the injury bug biting the team in full force as they come down the regular season stretch.
First, it was Steph Curry and the ankle that’s bothered him all season — and for most of his career — when he tweaked it yet again on March 8 against the San Antonio Spurs. Golden State announced he would miss at least four games. Then it was Klay Thompson, who fractured his thumb three days later against the Minnesota Timberwolves — he’ll miss at least two weeks.
Now it’s Kevin Durant. Last year’s Finals MVP suffered an incomplete rib cartilage fracture and was ruled out of Friday’s game against the Sacramento Kings. Durant is expected to be sidelined for at least two weeks. The Warriors would go on to lose that contest 95-93.
In about two weeks time, the Warriors went from having one of the most formidable offenses and scoring trios in the entire league, to having Quinn Cook and Nick Young logging starter minutes.
Luckily for the Warriors, they’ve built up a big enough lead in the standings to achieve a 52-17 record, good for second place in the Western Conference. But the issue for the remainder of the season now becomes how healthy will the Warriors be come playoff time?
Curry and Durant have injury histories. Curry particularly has been bothered by this ankle since he entered the league. Without either of them, the Warriors — while still incredibly talented — will be on a completely even playing field with the Houston Rockets, and possibly other teams in the gauntlet that will be the Western Conference playoffs.
The bigger issue on top of the pending injury concerns becomes whether the Warriors should just pack it in for the rest of the regular season, and regroup for another expected title run.
Steve Kerr doesn’t seem to be thinking that way, however.
“All these injuries seem to be temporary,” Kerr told reporters. “A couple weeks, a week, two weeks – whatever. We’re in good shape. We’ve just got to survive this next slate of games and hopefully, start getting guys back and get rolling again for the playoffs.”
That’s true. None of the aforementioned injuries seem to be anything more serious than a few weeks of rest and relaxation. But that’s assuming the best case scenario for these players.
Should we assume that the Warriors are without their scoring trio for the next couple of weeks as their health updates have indicated, that would put their return roughly around April 1. At that time, Golden State would have six games remaining on their schedule. Four coming against playoff teams (Oklahoma City, Indiana, New Orleans, and Utah) with the other two games against Phoenix.
After missing the last few weeks on the court, with injuries that most likely won’t be at 100 percent, tossing their most valuable contributors back into the fray against a slate of playoff teams probably isn’t the smartest idea.
At this point, the Warriors postseason position is locked up. They likely won’t take the top seed away from Houston, and their lead is big enough to keep their second seed intact regardless of who’s on the court. The only thing left now is the determining who Golden State will play in the first round. With the revolving carousel that is the playoff standings out West, that’s anybody’s guess right now.
The only thing that’s certain is whichever team coming into Oracle Arena for that first round will be battle tested and talented based off of the dogfight they had to survive just to make the playoffs. The last thing the Warriors need to be is a banged up in a postseason with their first opponent smelling blood in the water.
In all likelihood, the Warriors — should everything go according to plan — will play the Houston Rockets for a chance to return to their fourth straight NBA Finals. Only this time, a potential Game 7 won’t be at Oracle Arena. It will be in downtown Houston, at the Toyota Center.
An advantage as big as the Warriors’ homecourt can never be understated. Operating in a do-or-die situation away from home will be newfound territory for this bunch. Regardless of talent or team success, at that point, it’s anybody’s game.
It won’t be easy for the Golden State Warriors as they try to extend their dynasty’s reign. This might be their most difficult year yet.
Durant, in his own words, can’t even laugh right now without feeling pain. The league’s only unanimous MVP is operating on one and a half ankles, and the team’s second Splash Brother has an injury on his shooting hand.
Resting up the team’s stars should be the team’s top priority right now, at risk of entering the postseason hobbled. Track record means nothing if the Warriors don’t have their full arsenal at disposal when the games matter most.
Hey, a 16-seed finally won a first-round game in the NCAA Tournament. Anything is possible on a basketball court, and the Warriors should do everything possible to ensure they’re not the next major upset candidate in line.